This reflection looks at the last component of Ambiguously Human, the installation. My reflections on the films series are here: Wall-E, Ghost in the Shell, The Stepford Wives, and Ex Machina.

Much of my own thoughts on the installation can be found in the interpretive text (available on the Installation page). Experiencing the installation itself over the months it was on view, and having many conversations with visitors on it, did prompt several new connections in my thinking about it. I’ll highlight a few of the most interesting ones.

I curated this installation to prompt viewers to thinking about the separation of “human” as opposed to “object” as a spectrum rather than a binary. The works were selected because they asked that question to some degree. In discussions about the Humanized Objects I talked a lot about my experiences with the Puppet Patterns and the currency as pieces that really helped form the installation and deepen my thinking. They’re both things I’m familiar with in my own life; I’ve had paper dolls (even if not paper puppets like these) and I use currency (if not the specific ones on view). Seeing them a museum context helped me to think more about the visual qualities of dolls and money, and to critically engage with their uses.

Dolls really sparked my interest in this installation. I was fascinated by how they’re vaguely human forms that are inert on their own but they can take on the elaborate personalities, narratives, and actions that people (especially children) project onto them. Dolls exemplify this way that humanized objects are understood to be their own “people” in their interactions with humans. Of course, it’s understood that they’re not fully human; they don’t continue to be their own people after someone stops interacting with them. We have plenty of horror movies about the scenarios in which dolls do carry out actions independently of humans. We also, though, have plenty of stories where that situation isn’t cause for horror (Toy Story, Pinocchio, and The Velveteen Rabbit, to name a few). This latter case is particularly interesting to me because these narratives suggest that objects (dolls in particular) are capable of being human in having their own sentience and desires, not in a malicious way, but in a way that demands the respect of humans, or at least condemns their disrespect.


Likewise, including currency helped me think about what political figures symbolize. Why do we use particular faces for our currency? What do they say? They are portraits, to be sure, but they’re highly abstracted portraits used for communication. Currency uses idealized images to call to mind what that person means in their particular, circulating context. When I first put the installation together I thought of currency as a functional object and nothing more, but discussing it more I realized that’s not quite true. Money is a symbolic object; it’s a physical representation of a concept. I defined the functional objects grouping as those that perform some purpose and don’t need to look human or have representations of figures in order to fulfill that function. They’re objects where the figure is in some ways added-on.

Currency, though it is a used object, isn’t materially useful as a container or a whistle is. It can fulfill its function without a human figure (and has), but it’s not as straightforward. Cases where money doesn’t feature human figures are interesting to compare. How do they convey legitimacy or evoke the nation? What ideals to they hold up? Currency without portraits clearly still works to evoke the nation and convey legitimacy of the currency. The question then becomes one of why human portraits are so common. They seem to more readily convey that information, or at least are the default way to show it barring particular cases where the figure is considered inappropriate. That is, the figure seems to give some special properties to currency that other symbolic imagery does not (or at least by default does not).

The conversations I had around currency also often brought in the Soviet propaganda posters, particularly the one showing Stalin, since this was another instance of using the image of a political figure. I was interested in how Stalin’s image was a recognizable portrait but even more so a symbol of ideals and authority, as the portraits on currency are. From my conversations, it was a really popular piece. It’s visually engaging, as a large poster with bright colors, and for several visitors the image of Stalin provoked strong reactions. Stalin is still a potent symbol to us. Outside of its original context the idealized symbolic elements of the portrait stand out and jar with how we think of him; he’s not a noble visionary leading us into a bright future but a terrifying dictator. The image of Stalin animates the poster and often elicited strong, emotional reactions from visitors.


The completeness of the body was also something I started thinking about as I spent more time with the installation. Visual representations of the human can include substantially less of the body than we typically see of actual humans and still be immediately recognizable as such. These images are representations of humans, not actual humans, and don’t need entire bodies in order to work in that role. One obvious example, in my installation and beyond, are portraits. Portraits are generally thought to visually illustrate a person’s features but also capture something of their personality or other essence. Many of them are not full length; a great deal only show the face, including some of the currency in my installation. Yet we still understand them to be representations of that whole person, not simply a part of them. These objects contain and convey that individual, personal spirit.

Portraits can show visual fragments of the body without a face and still be easily recognizably human. The print of Saint Dominique is a great example. It’s extremely abstracted. The lines are simple and give us more a conceptual outline of a body than any sense of visual detail. There is no face; there isn’t even a complete head. The hand, viewed in isolation, looks like a flame. But I think that’s the interesting thing: the hand can only be viewed in isolation after you see the whole body, after you understand it’s showing a human figure. Despite its abstraction and focus on the torso, this print is quite obviously of a person.

Not only is this figure a human, but a saint. As representations that take the human form, saints all have their own bodily symbols and identifiers. Saint Dominique’s common attributes are lilies and a dog carrying a torch in its mouth. Neither those nor some of the saint’s other attributes are unambiguously depicted in Matisse’s print, but having looked up Saint Dominique’s iconography I can see them in it. The flame-like hand I see recalls the burning torch, albeit indirectly and unconventionally. To me, it’s an interesting way of playing with attributes and images of the human figure. This print can read as a generic, unidentifiable body or a highly specific one, depending on the back and forth context you contribute. Knowing the saint’s attributes adds a layer to the work. It’s not just an abstracted portrait; it’s an abstracted bodily representation of a religious figure that can function as a sacred intermediary.


My interest in the body also took form in looking at idealizations of it. I was interested in how some of the works in my installation – particularly the anonymous figures below Stalin, the family on the City of Burbank budget, the ere ibeji figure – show idealized bodies in order to convey things about those people. I write more about the (presumably) Latvians in the poster with Stalin in the interpretive text, but essentially these anonymous figures seem to be abstracted idealizations of the (resolutely and optimistically Soviet) Latvian potential. They’re literal anthropomorphisms, giving human shape to human concepts. Likewise, the central figures in Kitaj’s print of the City of Burbank’s budget are an idealized (white, middle class, heterosexual) family. The ere ibeji is a Yoruba figure created to be the new physical body for a deceased twin child. The figures are given highly idealized features, although I’m less familiar with the context of what those are and how they take form. Idealized figures communicate through the shape of the body itself, and they reflect the values of those in power or of social conventions. Idealized object-bodies offer aspirational points of contact and understanding with those who interact with them.